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What you need to know about testamentary capacity

In order to be valid, a New York will must meet certain legal requirements. One of the most important issues is the testator's mental capacity.

The basic principle is that a person disposing of his or her property must understand what he or she is doing. Defining what type of mental capacity is necessary for this and determining whether a particular person possessed this capacity can form grounds for exactly the sort of lengthy and expensive probate litigation most people would like to avoid.

Basic requirements for testamentary capacity

The bar New York law sets for testamentary capacity falls fairly low. The testator must know the natural objects of his or her bounty, which generally means knowing who one's relatives and loved ones are.

He or she must also have a general idea of the extent of the property involved. This typically means knowing an approximate amount and type of property. The law does not require remembering specific values, accounts or precise descriptions.

Finally, the testator must understand the meaning of his or her dispositions in the will. Basically, this means knowing that leaving something to a person in a will means that person will own that asset, as well as understanding that leaving someone out of the will may mean that person gets nothing.

Incapacity in other areas does not always mean testamentary incapacity

Many other legal transactions, such as making a gift, entering into a contract or creating some types of trusts, require a higher level of mental acuity. Thus, if a court has determined a lack of capacity for another purpose, this, on its own, does not establish a lack of testamentary capacity. Even a diagnosis of a condition that may impact capacity does not alway mean a lack of testamentary capacity.

Addressing potential issues can help deal with future challenges

In the best of all possible worlds, the testator would make and execute the will before beginning to experience any health issues that might cast doubt on his or her mental capacity. However, sometimes it becomes necessary for a person to make or change a will at a point where testamentary capacity might be in doubt. An experienced attorney can help you take appropriate action to protect the will from potential future challenges.

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